Friday, September 13, 2019

Homes, Hearts, Hearths: Infinite Home (Alcott) and The Dutch House (Patchett)

I think that I need to catch up a bit and that means tempering my rambling tendencies...

Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott
In a sense, Edith has collected strays. An intellectually challenged man whose sister is rarely far, a beautiful recluse truly afraid of all, an artist (former) who has been altered by stroke, a comic. But as Edith's mind fails and her son sniffs around,  they fear losing apartments and, more truly homes

This is a beautiful work. Character driven but still with plot. I'm not sure that through ending satisfied me...not so much in its failure to provide answers as in those it chooses.  But the sheer beauty in the (to an outside eye)  mundane lives is magic.

4 stars.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The house, central to the title and to the tale. Not long after moving to their father's dream...the big house, elaborate of the sort that makes it hard to sit in sitting rooms...their mother leaves. And it is merely time until Maeve and then Danny are dismissed by their new stepmother. We see them throughout their lives as scenes of adolescence and adulthood build on scenes of youth.

It's the type of tale were it would be easy to say too much. It traces how childhood, family, and place build adult lives. It looks at trapped pain and the (in)ability to learn certain skills. How one set of dreams can suffocate another. And who we cling to

It's often sad, despite triumphs, but Patchett never leads you astray...and w her prose, I wouldn't mind anyway.

Another 4 stars...above average (and my avg is skewed bc I'm picky. But I cant quite muster 5. I'll say 4.5 while I'm in control.  And thank the publisher for the advance copy.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Marley (Clinch) and The Last Time I Saw You (Constantine)

While the first of this pair wasn't finished all that long ago (though I can't say the same for the second) I now have an extra bias in the former's favor since I have a new (half-)nephew who bears the same name as the book. While the movie rarely outshines the book, even without meeting him I can guarantee that I love the boy more than I could ever love a book. And that, my dear friends,  is saying something 
Business first - thank you to Goodreads,  the publisher, and the author for a free review copy. As always,  this review is honest and not influenced by the price...

Marley isn't dead. He's very much alive and shares the spotlight with Scrooge in this prequel/origin story. Marley is already a tad shady when he meets Scrooge who is newly arrived at the boys school. They remain connected into adulthood, building a business in which Scrooge manages the numbers...with the simple honesty of figures and arithmetic done right...and Marley brings in the money, often through nefarious means including ties to the slave trade.  They also overlap in love, with Marley interested in Scrooge's sister, Fan, and Scrooge in love w Fan's best friend

Having not read Clinch's previous work, for me the concept recalled Wicked (and a children's book about the Big Bad Wolf and his bad cold). It gives a different view of a famous character and explains how the character came to be the person we see as a villain (of sorts) in traditional telling. Here, this means Scrooge shares the spotlight even though Marley is the protagonist.

This is very well written and provides something for a wide range of readers. It is a character study, it has plot points (that is, things do happen...some dramatic, some quiet), and it has a sense of time and place. Impressively, Clinch handles all of this well. It has a definite literary feel...I'd recommend reading it in your favorite quiet chair rather than on the beach or a plane so you can focus and savor the details without interruption and choose when to break rather than be at the mercy of a seatmate or frolicking children. 

A solid 4 stars. Def for a literary crowd looking for a true novel rather than a mass market book (note: I appreciate the latter too, just need the right match to a moment).

Kate seems like one of the lucky ones. A privileged upbringing.  A handsome husband, a darling daughter, and top notch career. When her mother dies suddenly and mystery text-er begins sending threatening messages, it all begins to unravel. She questions everything. Her oldest friend,  putting aside years of estrangement to come to the funeral, takes on the new of lead investigator.  Blaire takes on the role of chief investigator,  uncovering secrets in the circles of high society that run from the distant to the terrifyingly close

Well, i suppose it's meant to be terrifying.  Honestly, this just didn't do much for me. I didn't see the entire ending coming but I saw parts. And the rest...I just wasn't invested and it dragged. 

Two stars because it wasn't just wasn't, in my humble opinion,  very good. You can find a better beach book or airplane ride fodder at the supermarket. 

I did, however,  appreciate the opportunity to read a free copy from the publisher in exchange for what is quite clearly an honest review!

Friday, June 28, 2019

The written version of the utter beauty in a storm at sea: Cygnet (Butler)

Cygnet by Seasons Butler

I finished this a while ago, but it lingers in my mind. The paperback version that I read as an ARC (with thanks to the publisher and the author for the copy in exchange for my honest review) came out this week so it semed an apt time to write this.

A very basic overview - We meet Kid on the verge of her eighteenth birthday. She had been discarded by her parents (who provided quite limited parenting) and left in the hands of her grandmother who lives and - before our story opens - dies on an isolated island that serves as a retirement community. Many of the residents oppose Kid's very presence (a blatant violation of the age minimums and standards for joining) even though most recognize she has nowhere to go. After all, using the self assigned moniker the Wrinkles, they came to the island (Swan) specifically to escape "the Bad Place" of modern life.

But is there escape to be had or is it a tad futile - esp for the sole cygnet (a baby swan for those who have not yet looked it up) with more years ahead than behind - as climate change chips away at the ground below their feet and takes feet of Kid's yard in moments?

And that's all setting...notable and unique,  but there's more. There's the boy with whom Kid dreams of escape (and while it doesn't bother me, readers who do mind should know there's sex). There's the adolescent rebellion pushing through in Kid's actions and her internal monologue (it is 1st person...always a special feat when done well), placing rough and tumble wit and rage amid the often lyrical prose. There's the story of a woman who hires Kid to digitally alter undesirable memories out of her photos....melancholy doesn't quite fit that story but it is stuck in my mind.  And there are also a few kind friends who keep a loose eye on Kid, including a particularly poignant relationship between Kid and a woman who has dementia - a relationship that deepens whom even as her partner fades further away and the woman's past becomes present with Kid assigned a role.

I felt this book. And that's high praise. Did I like all of Kid's actions? No...but few adolescents would merit that praise (and they'd either be dubbed unrealistic or be as boring as I was and thus not merit a novel!).

Oddly, in my mind this book was shorter than the 240pp listed here, but I thought it lighter in length, not depth. Maybe the poignancy just made it rich cake. It is by no means an easy read..."dystopian" is bandied about quite often. There is an acute sense of time and pressure building in Kid and Swan idle (maybe that added to the density). Still, I found spirit...particularly in a scene where Kid briefly becomes part of the cool kids club (come on, every place has them)...and hope.

In some ways, this novel is quiet and lovely. But stuff happens. Not all if it good.  And not all readers will approve of some elements (I found they all fit the text and never seemed gratuitous, but for those who avoid it there is harsh language and drug use in addition to the aforementioned sex). But this book is propelled by characters and setting - which blend deeply and irretrievably into each other - rather than action, even despite the constantly altering landscape.  The book stands much like the island, filled with beauty but with waves threatening the very ground below. Which may not matter for some who not see Swan's end, but pushes our cygnet to consider her place.

In some ways, this novel is quietness literary, and lovely. But stuff happens. Not all if it good and not all readers will approve of some elements (I found they all fit the text and never seemed gratuitous, but for those who avoid it there is harsh language and drug use in addition to the aforementioned sex). But this book is propelled by characters and setting - which blend deeply and irretrievably into each other - rather than action, even despite the constantly altering landscape.  The book stands much like the island, filled with beauty but with waves threatening the very ground below. Which may not matter for some who not see Swan's end, but pushes our cygnet to consider her place.

4 of 5 stars (one storyline in particular just didn't fit for me).

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Gravity is the Thing (Moriarty) - A Fun, Rich, Unique Ride

Gravity is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty

Since she was a teenager...and beginning the same year her brother (less than a year younger) disappeared...Abi has gotten mysterious chapters from something named The Guidebook.  As the present day story opens, Abi has placed her son in his grandparents' care because an all expenses paid trip promises to reveal the truth about the book.  This excursion leads to several important relationships and a series of "formal" lessons....though I wont say what they are about. These chapters fit in with some from her past, including her brother's story, her romantic past, her son's arrival, and the creation of her coffeeshop.

This book is incredibly hard to describe.  There's a lot that seems silly...but that's self-acknowledged at all times. And that makes it more than just tolerable.  We're sharing the giggles with a fascinating cast. I'd have liked to know more about some of those secondary characters and yet I'm also ok with not knowing bc that's what life typically offers....a glimpse, a few details,  but not omniscience.

Ultimately,  this is a happy and heartwarming read. It is original in plot and form. It is quirky but it works.

I adored Abi...even if she frustrated me at times.  She is a far from perfect person, but I like my characters to be fleshy, to have hearts but also scars, strengths but imperfections.  She loves her son, but tries of him too. And she wants love, but is also wholly complete alone.

I can't really put a finger on the answer to what this books is about beyond simply being about life and about living it. Reaching and striving but feeling whole in one's self and at peace in one's surroundings.

4.5 stars. I'm not sure what's keeping it from a true 5, but will round up. Thank you to the publisher for the advance copy.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton

Maybe I'll catch up more quickly if I let myself post singles...esp when I finish a book and feel compelled to review it that week...

Is it wrong to say that I sometimes feel like Holocaust fiction is overdone? It is obviously an important period that must not be forgotten, but... I guess sometimes it just feels too convenient to use as a dramatic backdrop.

And yet some books live up the challenge. Last Train focuses on the effort to save Jewish children who were in the path of evil, whose families were so afraid that they placed their children in the hands of strangers in the hope that it meant the children might survive...even if it seemed doubtful they'd ever see them again. As many books do, this novel relies on several protagonists including a woman instrumental in the effort (a fictionalized version of a real woman), a teenage Jewish who grew up in wealth and with love,  as teen girl whose mother is a true journalist,  another woman involved in the transport effort, and even architect of death who sadly is better known than the architects of life.

This falls toward the literary end of the historical fiction spectrum but is by no means inaccessible (and, perhaps a bit snobby to say, I can't quite call it literature). It was a fast read and engaging. I wanted to know what happened to the characters and, more importantly (IMHO) I wanted to read at least a bit about the real Tante Truus who devoted her life to serving others well beyond the time of the transport (as if she hadn't done enough for the world!).

4 of 5 stars. Enjoyed Zofie very much, and her admiring young friend. 

Thank you to Harper for the advance readers copy in exchange for my honest thoughts.  And to Ms Clayton for her response to my Goodreads review (linked above)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Snakes (Jones) and The Perfect Fraud (LaCorte): Two Very Different Books, Two Very Different Reviews

Two very different books...

A road trip, a mini-break. That was the plan when young marrieds Bea (psychotherapist) and Dan (artist at heart, estate agent in every day) leave London for the countryside. The first stop, a crumbling old hotel being run by Bea's brother, Alex. Adding to the cast - and moving from a leisurely stroll w a touch of family drama to full-on trauma - Bea's parents arrive carrying the scent of wealth and secrets.

More would require spoiler tags. It shifts, even after mom and dad join the scene, from a slow study of characters to a study in class to a...well, busier? just more-er?...tale.

I liked the first half more than the second. But, throughout (well, the last pages...let's just forget those...) there's enough there to chew on for a reader who very much favors character over plot.

3.5 of 5. But rounded up because there's something that lurks beyond it. And a thank you to the publisher for the free copy in exchange for an always honest review.

PS Yes, there are snakes. Real and metaphorical, both

Claire is not a psychic...though only the reader and her longtime boyfriend Cal are in on that secret. Since the gift runs through her family, her career path was...well, preordained...and she's working as a psychic in Sedona when a family emergency brings her back home, stepping away from an increasingly complex relationship with Cal and back into a complex relationship with her mom.

Claire crosses paths with Rena, a mother making her own crosscountry journey searching for answers. Rena's young daughter, Stephanie is very ill and Rena is running out of options. Knowing no one and with only the followers of her blog for company -- Rena's relationship with Stephanie's dad collapsed under the pressure, plus he needs to keep his east coast-based and the insurance that comes with it -- Rena moves Stephanie to Arizona, pinning her hopes on a specialist there.

I fully expected this to be closer to a beach read than a work of great literature. There's  nothing wrong with that and I can enjoy the mental equivalent of diner chow. But this just didn't do much for me.  I didn't really connect with any of the characters or feel invested in the story. I had to keep looking while I wrote this review to avoid mixing up the protagonists' names. And I didn't feel anything much in the way of suspense.  Two of five stars...because it isn't horribly written but I just didn't care.

And, regardless,  thank you to the publisher for the advance copy...after all, my good reviews are meaningless in the absence of the opposite to show that they truly don't dictate the "results" of my review!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Oh the Places You'll Go - Tony's Wife (Trigiana) and Labyrinth of Spirits (Ruiz Zafron)


Here's the thing.  I don't write reviews all that often and they often feel tardy to me. But, I also like to write what I (humbly) think are strong reviews.  I want them to be of use to potential readers (or folks curious about other folks' thoughts in the after). I like them to help good writers too...I've been honored to hear from a few...and believe quite strongly that positive reviews are meaningless in the absence of the opposite.  So, this time, no apologies.

And clearing my queue a little bit by admitting there are a few books about which I have little to say. They are getting quick reviews on Goodreads but not here.

I can't pass up advance copies of Trigiana's work. A few have disappointed but others soared. This fell someplace in between. 

Chi Chi and Saverio meet on the Jersey shore in the late 1930s. They share music and Italian blood, coursing through their veins in equal measure.  Chi Chi is part of the big stereotypical Italian family, scraping by but never alone, and with big dreams . Sav has begun following his own but lost some of his past along the way. They fall in live...but with each other or the dream? 

This isn't a typical love story (despite some blurbs, although therite is a deep love tying the leads together.  Really, it is actually about becoming more than loving...becoming who we grow into and, most importantly,  who directs that story.  

If you want a typical romance,  look elsewhere.  But this is a good read about characters and choices. There is plot and story, but characters and setting stand out more. For me, it didn't soar like Shoemaker's Wife...I enjoyed visiting the world in its pages but was ready to leave too (and it could have benefited from a sharper editorial knife). 

Trying to sum it up, I'll call it a good summer read...ideally on the Jersey shore with music playing...put it down, dance, come back.  Chi Chi would approve

3.5 to 4 stars.

This is the fourth book in a....well....unset set. Instead of being sequential, the author intends for a reader to be able to dive in at any point or even read just one book....they are meant to be able to standalone or to wrap themselves into one another so that no book comes first...though this does, nonetheless, bring the story to something of a close.

For most of this book, the Sempre family and honorary member (and comic relief)  Fermin - a crew who were a focal point of two of the other novels - take a back seat to Alicia Gris. With lots of metaphorical baggage...though very few belongings unless you include the physical scars and pain from a childhood incident we witness early on...Alicia has served as something of an unofficial detective. Her boss is tied in with government in the vast machine of Franco's Spain but they are usually called in to answer the stickiest of questions. This time, it is the disappearance of Valls, who featured prominently in at least one of the other novels from his days running a notorious prison where it wasn't unusual for a perceived political enemy of Franco's rising regime to go in and never come out. Now, Valls is a toasted political heavyweight w a very ill wife and a treasured daughter who disappears following a big party at his estate.

I've read two of the other books in the cycle, one I cherished (the title location, the Cemetary of Forgotten Books, is memorable and among the most tempting of fictional spots) and the other was a bit of a letdown. Having a poor memory and a bit of time having passed since then, I refreshed my recollection by reading a plot summary of each. I do think you'd be fine reading this as a wouldn't know some backstories but probably wouldn't know to miss them.

I enjoyed revisiting the Sempe clan and the always-lovable Fermin, but appreciated the new star. Alicia is a fascinating character...though not always likable so if you need to like (or relate to) your protagonist, look elsewhere. The story is all the other books are...and tough to follow at times. It required attention but the thoroughness of the world it creates provides a reward.  Still, I think it could have done with a good 50 page trim.

4 stars. For a literature-minded reader willing to concentrate who likes feeling immersed in a book's world. Not as notable, IMHO, as Cemetary, but still an accomplishment.  Review based on a copy provided free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.